Two recent and independent events – Peter Gelb’s misguided and short-lived effort to muzzle bad reviews in the house organ Opera News and the cancellation of an announced concert of Wagner’s music at Tel Aviv – have raised principles that ought to be separate, but are too often conflated. Let’s distinguish “managing an international arts organization” and “censorship.”
I am a frequent flyer and never, when looking through the airline magazines in the seat pocket, have I found articles like “Great Plane Crashes I Have Known.” And when looking at a film on a plane I notice that scenes with air crashes are customarily edited out. This is sensible policy. The airline’s mission is to provide safe and comfortable transport, and providing images of flaming plane wrecks is inconsistent with that mission.
In this light the Met’s PR debacle seems entirely understandable and in good faith (if, as all acknowledge, resulting in the wrong outcome). The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s mission is to support the Met financially by raising funds and also by growing audiences through promoting the Met’s performances and radio and other broadcasts. While it may also contain editorial material unrelated to the Met, it is to support the Met that it exists, and that is the standard by which every one of its activities should be aimed. (It certainly is the reason I contribute to the Guild.) Having an article (and an editorial) appear in Opera News that says “Don’t come to the Met” is clearly at odds with this mission, as would be accepting a paid ad saying “The Met Stinks, Don’t Attend.” If a member of the Met staff were to give an interview encouraging people not to buy tickets to the Ring, that official would properly be seen as undermining the organization’s mission. It is not censorship to have an editorial policy.
By contrast, “censorship” is the action of a state entity to ban certain information, based on its content. Efforts to censor practically always result in comedy. Forbidding the publication of the closing number on the stock exchange if it corresponds to the date of the Tiananmen Square rebellion is an example. Banning the performance of certain anti-Semitic composers (Wagner) but not other anti-Semitic composers (Chopin) is another. Permitting the reading of anti-Semitic authors (Hemingway, Eliot) and the display of anti-Semitic art (Degas) or the sale of automobiles by anti-Semitic car manufacturers (Henry Ford) – while banning the Tännhauser overture is yet another.
But this is okay. As Thornton Wilder wrote in Our Town: “Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense.” And a theocracy like Israel has more than its share. Ask President Ahmadinejad.
It is nevertheless our responsibility, in discussing or considering human events, to approach matters with linguistic and conceptual rigor. Making sure that an arts organization operates consistently with its mission is by no means on a level with governmental censorship of thought or expression. So having an organizational policy that includes not bad-mouthing the Mother Ship would seem on its face to be entirely appropriate, and if the Guild publishes stuff inimical to the Met’s interests, Gelb has not only the right but the obligation to sit down with the Guild and figure out whether there is a solution.
I encourage respect for everyone involved. There’s enough demonizing going on these days not to add to the list a perfectly appropriate piece of management that deservedly flopped.